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- Wednesday, March 05, 2014 - From Print Edition


KARACHI: Officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) have confirmed that recent cases of polio in China and Syria have been traced to Pakistan. Moreover environment samples of the poliovirus found in Israel are also thought to have origins in Pakistan.


It is an interesting journey that traces the origins of a poliovirus. “The DNA of a polio virus is like a family tree. It maps generations. It has the names of its parent on it,” said a doctor affiliated with the WHO.


When a child develops outward signs of contracting the poliovirus — in the shape of a crippled leg or a paralyzed hand — samples of his stool is sent to a laboratory. It is tested, the DNA code read and the parent code traced.


There is a second test which confirms the location of the polio virus — an environment sample. Last month, the WHO declared Peshawar the largest reservoir of the poliovirus. This was ascertained by testing sewerage water where the virus infests. “If the wild poliovirus is found to be growing in samples of sewerage water it means that a locality is threatened by the polio diseases, which if not controlled can also cause death,” said a representative of the WHO.


So let’s say if the DNA code found in environment samples in Israel match those in Peshawar the origin of the virus is confirmed. Similar tests can be done by stool samples of patients.


Dr Iqbal Memon, head of the Pakistan Pediatrics Association quoted an interesting case from 2007 when a 22-year old boy from Swat gave Australia its first polio case in 20 years. “He was born in Pakistan but traveled to Australia as a baby with his parents. As polio in Australia had been eradicated through various vaccination drives in the late 1980s he was never vaccinated. When he visited his hometown Swat, he contracted the disease and took it back to him in Australia,” said Memon.


Instances like these are the very reason why aid organizations all over the world have their eyes on Pakistan, which is the only country where the disease exists, followed by Afghanistan and Nigeria.


If the virus is not controlled it will soon become a global epidemic. Health teams in the Middle East have already begun a vaccination drive in four countries, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon after cases began to appear in Syria.


Meanwhile, as Syrian refugees make way to neighbouring Turkey, Turkey too is on a high alert. After warnings by the United Nations Turkey is launching a mass immunization campaign for its children against polio, state media reports.


India has refused to let people from Pakistan travel to their country without a polio immunization certificate amid fears of contracting the polio virus again. It celebrated its polio free status this year after not reporting a single polio case in three years — a requisite by aid organizations.


Saudi Arabia has imposed similar travel bans. And there is risk that more travel bans will follow pushing Pakistan into quarantine. “You see polio has no borders,” said Jan Markus Hellstrom, communication specialist of the Unicef. “It can travel great distances and the only solution is routine immunization.”